Saturday, December 7, 2019

Knives Out, 2019 - ★★★★

Rian Johnson brings back the murder mystery whodunnit genre with this enjoyable yarn about a powerful man and his extended family. Coming off the heels of The Last Jedi, Johnson gives us a clever twist on the "Clue" mystery-thriller staring a long list of celebrities I won't fully mention here. The stars that shine brightest are Christopher Plummer (Harlon Thrombey - patriarch of the family) Daniel Craig (as the Southern twanged detective Blanc), Ana de Armas (Marta Cabrera - Harlon's nurse) and Captain America himself (Chris Evans as Thrombey's grandson Ransom). I won't give any spoilers away to whodunnit, but the mystery goes on throughout the film and the best part of this movie is watching Daniel Craig try to solve the case. This is one of his best performances of his career and his southern mannerisms are spot-on and hilarious at times. Basically everything he says in this movie is worth a chuckle and you can't take your eyes off him when he's on-screen even in background scenes.

It's interesting to contrast this film with the recent success of Succession on HBO. There's a lot of similar dynamics here but Succession manages to fully paint the family members, adding depth that can't be duplicated in a two-hour film. Most all the cast here is excellent while a few key actors are under utilized (Toni Collette and Jaime Lee Curtis in particular).

This isn't a perfect film and there are parts that drag. I wish the mystery was played out a bit differently too, but Craig alone powers this movie to a high rating. de Armas is really clever and engaging here and shows us so much more than she brought to the table in Blade Runner 2049. This is definitely worth seeing and you'll have fun watching this play out. It'll be interesting to see where Johnson goes from here.

The Irishman, 2019 - ★★★

I don't fully get the whole universal praise of this film. I enjoyed watching it and really do appreciate all the technical work done with the de-aging of the main characters. The performances by De Niro, Pesci and Pacino are all top-notch in this "true story" look at the disappearance / murder of Jimmy Hoffa. De Niro in particular carries the film and it's really his best work since Goodfellas. You can tell that this was a passion project for the cast and Martin Scorsese as every scene is beautifully detailed and well crafted. The film looks great in 4K as well as I was able to watch this on Netflix at home, a trend that I am starting to enjoy more and more.

The major problem I had with this film is the run-time. This movie is waaaay too long and over indulgent. I felt we just got every single detail of Frank Sheeran's (De Niro) life and some of it could have been cut out. So many conversations ad nauseum between the main characters that after a while it's overkill and I started zoning out. Goodfellas is the best comparison to this film and that film just was so much more engaging than this one with memorable scenes and characters. The Irishman tells an intriguing story about growing old and coming to grips with what you've done over your lifetime but the way it's conveyed on screen is just a series of brutal killings peppered between forgettable conversations. Maybe part of the problem here is a lack of strong/memorable female performances in this movie. Lorraine Bracco brought so much to Goodfellas and that edge seemed to be missing here.

Marty Scorsese is a brilliant director but this is not in his top tier of films. It's really great to see Joe Pesci working again and I hope this isn't his final film. This is worth seeing for sure, but you may want to break it up in several chunks if you're watching via Netflix.

Marriage Story, 2019 - ★★★★★

Wow, this was a powerful film and very personal for me. As someone going through aftershocks from divorce and custody disputes, this felt very familiar at times. Noah Baumbach delivers a raw and gritty look at a real marriage falling apart before our eyes played out by two brilliant performances in Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. The two play two aspiring thespians. Nicole (Johansson) is a film actor turned Broadway art-house actor who decided moving to LA to be in a hit TV show was important for her career. Charlie (Driver) is a Broadway director who loves the pulse of New York City and runs a theater company there. Nicole's desire to be in LA pulls herself and her child Henry (Azhy Robertson) to relocate there with Nicole's Mom (Julie Hagerty).

What plays out through the bulk of the film is the back and forth between not only Charlie and Nicole but the dynamics of legal battling between Laura Dern (Nicole's attorney) and Alan Alda / Ray Liotta (Charlie's council). I fell like I've already given away too many plot details, but the draw of this film is the amazing performances by Johansson, Driver and Dern in particular. ScarJo has never been better. There is a scene early on that just focuses on her telling her marriage story to Dern in a raw uncut take where you can't take your eyes off her. She's so believable and makes you sympathetic to her plight even as I tended to side with the father in this situation. Driver is really really good as Charlie and he comes across as a genuine dad who loves his son but also loves his craft. The scene of him singing Stephen Sondheim near the end is a culmination of so much emotion throughout the film.

I don't believe I've ever really seen a Baumback film before and now I feel I should go and watch some of his earlier work. What he does here is lets his actors shine through unfiltered scenes that feel so real and natural. His takes are just long enough to let the emotion come out and bring us in as first-hand witnesses to this dispute. This movie is a masterpiece and only has a fault in the casting/writing of the child in the movie. Henry comes across as such an annoying / limited kids for an 8 year old. There is literally a scene where he's learning to read the word "iron" at age 9. He has a lot of pointless lines and he just isn't as real/genuine as the child in Kramer vs Kramer. Still, all the other performances are so good that they overshadow this small drawback. I haven't seen Judy yet, but I find it hard to believe there will be a better acting performance than what ScarJo delivers in this movie.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, 2019 - ★★★★½

Mr. Rogers is a role that Tom Hanks was born to play. The consummate nice-guy actor fully embodies the role of nice-guy children's TV show host. Hanks' performance oozes empathy and sincerity and never comes across as hacky or corny. The film, directed by Marielle Heller is a beautiful look at the life of magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (portrayed brilliantly by Matthew Rhys) who is struggling to find his way as a writer, new father and son to an estranged father (Chris Cooper). The film plays out like an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood targeted at grown-ups and Heller does a wonderful job of cross-cutting scenes from the show with real-life interactions between Lloyd, Mr. Rogers and his attempt to reconcile with his dad. The scenes toward the end with Cooper and Rhys are powerful and brought out a few tears in me.

I really enjoyed this film and can't recommend it enough. The only problem I had with it was watching This Is Us' Susan Kelechi Watson play Lloyd's wife. Her performance was OK, but I feel she'll always be Randall's wife from the TV show and I couldn't really believe her in this role for some reason. Of course this is a minor nitpick. See this movie which comes across as chicken soup for the soul and a great tandem film to the Won't You Be My Neighbor documentary about Fred Rogers. Tom Hanks is a national treasure and this is another in a long line of classic performances to add to his resume.

Honey Boy, 2019 - ★★★½

A slightly depressing but honest look at Shia LaBeouf's childhood and his relationship with his alcoholic-abusive father. LaBeouf plays a character similar to his real-life Dad named James, alongside Ford v Ferrari's Noah Jupe (as "Otis" aka Shia as a child). Director Alma Har'el paints a whimsical picture of innocense mixed with the pressure of working in show business and what . Otis ends up smoking a lot at a very young age and we see how his abusive relationship with his Dad turns into trouble later in life when a 20-something Otis is played by Lucas Hedges. The movie does a solid job of showing how a tough-love father can impact the life of an impressionable child. Touching on themes of divorce, Har'el delivers and allows Shia to shine in the lead role. His chemistry with Jupe is excellent, but overall I wanted a little more here. The film is short and to-the-point but there's nothing really new with this story. Still, this is a showcase for LaBeouf and we really need to look out for Noah Jupe as an up-and-coming your actor.